Friday 15 July 2011

¡Yo aprendo Español!

I'm just about to start the final few days of my 4 week intensive Spanish language learning course in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala - 5 hours of one-on-one tuition every weekday, homework every evening and weekend, and food and board provided by a local, non-English speaking family. It's been quite an experience - incredibly rewarding and frustrating in equal measure - and by the end I will have completed 100 hours of private Spanish lessons.
Xela Parque Central

So, do I speak Spanish....? That question's not as simple to answer as it may seem. There are different levels of 'knowing' a language and a big step up from understanding everything to actually being able to speak it. Being the forever pessimist, I'd probably still not claim to be able to ´speak Spanish', but my level of comprehension and speaking ability has definitely improved a huge amount from where I was a month ago.

It can sometimes seem like the more I learn, the more complicated things get: there are so many rules (and just as many 'exceptions' to the rules), verbs (regular, irregular, reflexive, pronominal, reciprocal) and tenses (present, past perfect and imperfect, projections of the future, the actual future and others that I haven't even touched on yet) and each verb ending conjunction changes depending on the subject you are referring to and the tense you are speaking in. It's a lot to take in and more than enough to make your head spin at times. I sometimes look back with a hint of fondness to my language ignorance of last month, when I would happily spout nonsense in the wrong tense, with the wrong conjunction and using the wrong sentence structure - I was speaking complete nonsense but I was blissfully unaware - now I know when I'm getting it wrong, but I don't always remember how to get it right!

Xela mountain overspill

I realise this opening is not a particularly encouraging and positive critique of my new language abilities, so I'm now going to squeeze on my ill-fitting optimistic hat. There's no doubt that my knowledge of all aspects of the Spanish language has come on leaps and bounds in the last three weeks (in reality, a very short period of time). Looking back to the beginning of last month and comparing to now; my level of comprehension and speaking ability has improved beyond what I could have hoped for. Back then there is no way I would have been able to communicate in the manner I do now - approaching random locals in the street to begin an exchange in Spanish, chatting to strangers on the bus, asking for directions when I inevitably get lost on a solo day trip. There are some days when it's only when I get to bed that I realise I haven't spoken a word of English all day. I only need a couple of days like this and it can feel strange to encounter and converse with another English-speaking person. This is what is meant by real 'language immersion'!

My school
My level of immersion has been helped somewhat by the location of my school and homestay; about 2km north of Xela city centre - well away from the multitude of bars and restaurant that, in the evening, become home to vast numbers of Spanish students, rebelliously whispering in English. My school - 'La Democracia' - is on a quiet 'calle' in zone three and my house is directly opposite, on the other side of the street. I have lessons every weekday afternoon from 2-7pm and, although I do venture into town most mornings, I'm often too lazy after class (especially if it's raining - like most evenings!) and instead just head back to my host family. This means that pretty much every day is exclusively Spanish-speaking (after 2pm at least).

Yessica - mi maestra!
The school principal is the phenomenal Flory - I don't think I've ever seen anyone work so hard but still have time to speak to everyone (in Spanish, of course) - and my 'Maestra' for the duration has been the lovely, miniature Yessica. 100 hours in a room with just me for company - she has had to endure a lot (mostly my pathetic attempts at joking in Spanish, but also the more specific stuff I do to amuse myself; like trying to find a way to end every Spanish story I tell with the phrase: "Yo comi un helado y fui a la cama"). Remarkably, not only has she risen above all my juvenile antics, but she's also somehow managed to keep us on track with the lesson plan and forced me to improve everyday. It's not often you spend 100 hours in 4 weeks with just one person (who's not your spouse) and it's even crazier to think we haven't spoken one word of English to eachother. Somehow it's worked, and not only am I indebted to her with regards to my Spanish, but she's become a good friend too.

Mi casa (top left)
I have been extremely lucky with my surrogate family too: a young couple called Magaly and Raul and their two kids - 6 year old Annelle, and the whirlwind of mischief that is 1 year old Santiago. Raul works long hours as a chef at a local restaurant, so I only really get to see him at mealtimes (when he goes out of his way to be sociable and friendly - I don't think I've ever seen him without a grin on his face). Despite only being a few years older than me, Magaly has well and truly become my temporary mother these last few weeks (read 'temporary', real mother!) - doing my washing, cleaning my room and cooking me three meals a day (75% of these meals may be refried beans, eggs and tortillas, but I'm still hugely grateful, and it's kept me very regular....). Annelle has been learning English at school for the last couple of months and even at this very basic level, she speaks more English than anyone else in the family. We often help eachother with homework - it was a little depressing at first to realise we were both at a similar level with our respective language learning, but I can safely say I'd wipe the floor with her now! (although I'm generally much more humble about it than that sentence suggests...)

Santiago - bien vestido!
Lastly, but definitely not leastly, Santiago. Ah... Santiago. The phrase 'mischief-maker' may have been created just for him. At 18 months old, he most definitely speaks less Spanish than me (which can be reassuring at times) and spends his days toddling around the house; grabbing, pulling and opening anything that's grabbable, pullable or openable. Some very specific Spanish phrases have been ingrained in my memory as a result, namely: "¡Santiago, No!", "¡No toca, Santiago!", and "¡No, Santiago, es muy caliente!". If I've really had enough of speaking Spanish for the day, I can spend some time playing with Santiago - Magaly appreciates the break in having to constantly watch him and I can turn my brain off, safe in the knowledge that he's not going to want to test my understanding of reflexive verbs in the third person.

Mi cuarto
It's been quite strange living this lifestyle - I sometimes forget that I'm actually travelling. It doesn't always seem like it when I have to study everyday, eat family meals around the kitchen table, and spend every night in my own bedroom. A drastic shift from the first month of my trip and the sort of travelling I'm used to - constantly on the move from city to city, meeting new people almost everyday and bedding down in communal backpacker hostels every night. There are benefits to how I'm living now - having my own space makes a nice change, for example, and it's been good to really get to know the city of Xela - but I am looking forward to getting on with the proper travelling again. It can get lonely at times here and some days can feel lacking in fun. But, when I look at the big picture, I realise that putting in the hours learning Spanish here is going to enrich the remainder of my trip no end. I'm also making the most of my spare time - jumping on a chicken bus or hiring a bicycle and getting out of the city whenever I can - but more on that later.

View from my room
Before I started my course here, I had only really been learning Spanish phrases whenever I needed them and picking up enough random words to get by. But, in order to really understand the language and become 'fluent' in the long term, it's necessary to know the underlying rules and learn to construct your own phrases rather than just repeating them from a book. One of the skills I have learnt most recently is being able to speak in the past tense. It may sound simple, but there's actually quite a lot to it! Up until recently I could only really speak in the present tense (and a bit in the future). Any conversations about the past would usually require me to just say at some point that I was talking about the past, and then continue to speak in the present - leaving the other person to switch my statements to the past in their own head, and probably feeling a bit like they're speaking to someone who recently suffered a brain injury. In essence, I was always living in the moment (in Spanish, anyway), which may sound nice - poetic, Buddhist even - but it can seriously limit your small talk. Literally everything that's ever happened did so in the past, and it's nice to be finally able to talk about it.

Los libros para aprender
To give you a quick idea of why it can be so hard to learn to speak in different tenses, I'll use the example of the verb 'to be' - one of the most useful and frequently required verbs in general conversation. Which is why it's nice to learn that not only are there two different forms of the verb in the infinitive (depending on exactly what you want to say) but they are both irregular (meaning that the various conjunctions of the verb don't follow the usual 'rules'). The first of the two 'to be' verbs is 'Estar' - used most frequently to explain temporary states of objects and people. In the present tense there are always five main different endings to each verb; depending on whether you're talking about yourself, about someone else informally, about someone else (or an object) informally, about yourself as part of a group, or about a group of other people. In these different situations, the verb 'Estar' becomes: Estoy, Estas, Esta, Estamos and Estan, respectively. But, bare in mind there are two different verbs for 'to be', the second being 'Ser' in the infinitive (used to describe more permanent characteristics) which changes to Soy, Eres, Es, Somos and Son in the above described situations.

Once you've mastered that, things go a bit more mental for the past tense - where, helpfully, both verbs are irregular again. 'Estar' becomes Estuve, Estuviste, Estuvo, Estuvimos and Estuvieron. For some reason 'Ser' becomes Fui, Fuiste, Fue, Fuimos and Fueron - which are exactly the same words used for the conjunctions of the verb 'to go' in the past tense. Oh, and did I mention that this is only one form of the past tense - the preterito tense: used to talk about things that only happened once, or at an exact time. If you want to talk more vaguely about something that happened frequently in the past, you need to use the imperfect forms of the two verbs - Estaba, Estabas, Estaba, Estabamos, Estaban (for 'Estar') and Era, Eras, Era, Eramos, Eran (for 'Ser').
My desk and window

Don't forget, this is just one verb (two variants) in the present and past tense. There are still at least two other sets of verb endings for the future tense and, of course, countless other verbs - with different endings for the different situations. This is what I mean by ignorance is bliss - it's great that I now know all this, but it's not always easy to work things out in my head quickly enough to have a proper conversation.

Another aspect of the language that can be difficult to get your head around, especially for a native English speaker, is the concept of masculine and feminine. This is alien to the British language, but a cornerstone of most other European dialects. Depending on the 'sex' of a word, you have to change the 'article' that goes before it (El or La, Un or Una), which changes again in the plural (Los or Las, Unos or Unas). Whether a subject is masculine of feminine can also affect other words in the sentence - adjectives, for example, which end in 'o' for masculine and 'a' for feminine. The most confusing thing is that there doesn't seem to be any logic behind whether a word is masculine or feminine - the day, for example, is masculine (El dia) but the night (La noche) is feminine - and there are always exceptions to the rule - the word Agua (water) is masculine in it's singular form (El agua) but feminine in the plural (Las aguas). Bonkers!

You also have to be careful how you use particular words. The word for 'hot' is 'caliente', however, if you say "Estoy caliente" that basically means you're horny. Instead you have to say "Tengo mucho calor", which literally translates as "I have much heat" (I think that actually sounds a lot dodgier, but oh well). Also, you use the verb 'Gustar' to say you like things and objects, but not people - because that means you like them in a 'strong' way. Instead there is the verb 'Caer bien' just for use in saying you like 'people'.

I realise that the above language lesson will have been incredibly boring for some of you - those who have no interest in Spanish and those who already know the language to a much higher level than myself - but this is just my attempt at a low-level explanation of some of the subtler nuances of the 'idioma'. I hope this gives a little insight into how I'm currently spending my days - a mixture of sitting dumbfounded with my head in my hands, but with increasingly regular moments of insight and realisation. It's the latter that really make it all worthwhile, and there's no better feeling than successfully partaking in any sort of Spanish conversation, with both parties fully understanding what is being said. I still have one more week of lessons left and, after that, at least another 7 months of opportunities to converse and learn more during my travels in Latin America. I'm getting there, slowly but surely, 'poco a poco'. As long as I keep it up, things can only get better and I've already improved astronomically from where I was at the start of this trip. Fluency is still a long way off, and I won't be applying for any translation jobs just yet, but every day I'm getting closer to feeling like I'll soon be able to say "¡Si, hablo Español muy bien!"

The focus of this blog has been purely on my Spanish learning exploits during my time in Guatemala so far and I haven't yet mentioned any other adventures during my first three weeks here - of which there have been many: volcanoes have been climbed, traditional villages visited and various other weird and wonderful experiences experienced. There's more than enough for a whole other blog - so I hope to publish another in the next week or so. Watch this space! :)

(more photos below - all photos can be clicked to enlarge!)

El centro de Xela

Xela Iglesia

A 'chicken bus' in full flow

Typical Xela shot

Another 'chicken bus' (repurposed American school buses)

My neighbourhood in Xela

Magaly, Raul & Annelle

Annelle & Santiago

Me & Santiago

My street in Xela - school on the left, house on the right

Me & Yessica

Me & Yessica - probably just after I've said something inappropriate

Flory & Yessica

Santiago enjoying his Frijoles (with "Kickey" for company)

Monday 4 July 2011

Exit Mexico

I've been a little slack with these updates recently - one of the side effects of being a 'student' again (with lessons everyday and homework every evening!). So, despite the fact that I've now been studying Spanish in Guatemala for a couple of weeks, I still need to finish blogging business in Mexico.

Main street in San Cristobal
My final week in Estado de Mexico was spent solely in San Cristobal de la Casas. Everything here is in great contrast to the places I visited previously in the country: situated 2000m up in a highland valley and surrounded by pine-covered hillsides - you can't get much further from a 'Playa'. San Cristobal is also in the state of Chiapas - very distinct in comparison to Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche. The rich, mountainous environment and frequent rains combine to create the perfect coffee-growing conditions (meaning real, quality coffee is readily available here, as opposed to the sweet sludge that is the norm on the Yucatan peninsula). The altitude and the rains also mean that things can get very cold and very wet in the afternoons; something I definitely wasn't prepared for in terms of clothing!

Main square in San Cristobal
The people are different too: approximately a quarter of the Chiapas population are indigenous Maya, and San Cristobal is surrounded by traditional Mayan villages. Many villagers make their livelihood selling clothes and crafts in the traveller hub of San Cristobal - they are easy to spot in their brightly-coloured, elaborate-embroidered outfits. It's also possible to visit some of the surrounding villages and (respectfully) observe modern Maya life - one of the most fascinating aspects being the way they have merged their pre-Hispanic beliefs with modern Catholicism, but more on that later...

Church viewpoint
San Cristobal itself has been a popular traveller's hangout for decades (and some of the more aged hippies look like they've been here for the duration). There's not so many fixed 'sights' or 'attractions' to see, it's more the look and vibe of the city as a whole that captivates so many visitors. When I first arrived I spent a couple of days just wandering around the city - perusing exotic fruits and eating way too many cheap tacos at the bustling local market, purchasing clothing more suitable for the cool climate at the crafts and fabric market, aimlessly sauntering down the cobbled central streets, and taking in the panoramic views from the two church lookout points on the edge of town. As night draws in, a healthy (in one sense of the word) after-dark scene emerges; with pubs and wine bars dotted all over town, followed up by late night salsa clubs - usually occupied by phenomenal local dancers who shame the tourists (like myself) into standing at the sidelines, nursing a beer and gawping at their hypnotic hips. I also quickly learnt that hangovers can be a tad more severe at altitude...

It would have been very easy to follow this relaxed routine for the entire week (and many people do!) but I really wanted to make the most of what the surrounding area has to offer as well. Thankfully, I found the drive to drag myself out of the city on three different day trips.

The bicycle crew
I was accompanied by four other travellers on my first expedition, as we hired bicycles to explore some of the neighbourhoods and forests right on the edge of town. Actually hiring the bikes turned out to be as much of an adventure as the trip itself. The first 'bike hire shop' we visited (as recommended by our hostel) turned out to be more of a 'clothes buying shop' and the owners looked very confused when we enquired about hiring bikes. Luckily, they were kind enough to provide further directions. On following these we reached a small restaurant: still no bikes, more confused looks. Eventually, we found ourselves at the front door of a random house. After a few minutes of knocking a rather dishevelled and dreadlocked hippie man appeared: "No problem", he said. "I have bikes". Before enquiring offhand, "Are any of you from Brixton?". Very odd.

Our eclectic range of bikes ('secured' with a single lock)
While it was technically true that he did have bikes, they turned out to be the most ridiculous and random set of cycling machines ever - all in various shapes, sizes and states of disrepair. I ended up with a giant, turquoise ladies bike (sporting the text 'comfort long bike' along the frame) simply because I was the tallest and the saddle was stuck on the highest setting. One of the other guys sat proudly astride a low-slung chopper with a seat 5x larger than necessary - it actually looked quite cool, but the floor-level riding position and complete lack of gears didn't really suit the rugged, mountainous terrain around San Cristobal. The other 'vehicles' were just as preposterous: featuring random, non-functional accessories - such as a spare inner tube (cut in half) or the world's smallest front basket - and adorned with pretty floral decorations and absurd slogans such as 'turbo speed' and 'professional rider'. We were also provided with a single chain and lock for all five bikes. For obvious reasons, we didn't make it very far out of town on these machines, but it did make for a very amusing expedition and we just about reached the pine forest with enough time to enjoy a short hike up into the hills.

Soggy street in San Cristobal
My second outing was a lot more organised. In fact, it was a bit too organised for my liking, as I booked myself onto a group tour to a famous canyon about an hour or so from the centre of San Cristobal. One of my biggest pet hates is tour groups; I can't stand the feeling of being herded around with scores of other tourists - all getting in each-others way, constantly and aimlessly clicking their cameras - and the standard 'breaks' at false restaurants and tacky shops operating solely for the tourist trade. There's never the chance to get truly 'off the beaten track' in this scenario - there's no chance of seeing anything really authentic about the country you are in or encountering any real local people. I much prefer the challenges that come with independent travel and the feeling of genuine achievement when you reach somewhere completely off your own back.

Anyway, despite my natural revulsion to tour groups, there are certain occasions when you just have to bite the bullet and sign up. The canyon tour was one of these occasions - it's very difficult to reach the town using public transport and when you arrive you're just thrown into a boat with an oversized tour group anyway, so there's no real benefit in attempting to get there independently.

Big bird on the canyon river
Once I'd gotten over the constant shepherding and the naff items for sale at the dock, the boat trip down the canyon was actually great fun. The river flowing through the centre has, over millions of years, created towering cliffs on each side - some reaching as far as 1km into the sky. The banks are lush green and rich with wildlife - home to flocks of exotic birds and the odd croc or two; stealthily skulking just below the water's surface. In spite of my initial reluctance, a grand day out was had by all! (although it would probably have still been improved without the presence of other people.... :)

En route to San Juan Chamula
My final jaunt out of town was also technically part of a 'tour', but the conditions of this trip were much more to my liking. It was a very personal and intimate setup - me and 3 friends from the hostel paid a local anthropologist guy to take us out to a couple of the numerous traditional Maya villages that encircle San Cristobal. The mode of transport was his snug little hatchback; we were able to dictate the pace of the trip and how long we spent in each place. Our guide was also very knowledgeable with regards to the local area and the culture, beliefs and traditions of the inhabitants.

Templo de San Juan
Our first stop was San Juan Chamula, a small town approximately 10km from San Cristobal - home to the Tzotzil indigenous Maya group and their unique religious practices. In the centre of town, the stark white Templo de San Juan is a nominally Catholic church, but churchgoers actually observe a fascinating blend of modern catholicism with the traditional customs and traditions practised by the locals before the Spanish arrived. On entering, the first thing that registers is the sheer number of candles - there are literally thousands of them - constantly flickering and casting a yellowish hue throughout the interior (I asked our guide if there had ever been a fire. "Yes", he responded. "Often"). The floor is covered with rich, green pine needles (representing the earth) and interspersed with prostrate worshippers. Lining the walls are many glass booths, each containing an effigy of a different Catholic saint. Locals position themselves in front of their favourite Saint and begin to pray; chanting, lighting yet more candles, proffering gifts and then spraying these offerings with 'Pox' (pronounced 'posh') - a highly alcoholic holy drink, consumed religiously by the Maya here. The only beverage that is imbibed more fervently is coca-cola, which is drunk on an industrial scale by the villagers all around San Cristobal - some refuse to drink anything else (even water) which can cause some pretty serious health problems later in life.

Different flavoured 'Pox'
In the short time we were inside the church we also witnessed a couple of chickens being sacrificed - having their necks broken by hand at the climax of a particularly important prayer. Ethereal music and mystical Mayan shaman add further to the other-worldly atmosphere in this place. Photos are strictly forbidden, which actually deepens the effect further as visitors are forced to take in and remember everything - the sights, smells, sounds - through the old fashioned method of human sense and memory. This is one place you definitely don't want to visit as part of a tour group!

Once we'd dragged ourselves away from the church, we headed to the neighbouring village of San Lorenzo Zincantan for a spot of lunch. However, this wasn't a standard food stop: our guide had organised for a local family to cook us a typical Maya village meal. The friendly family matriarch greeted us at the door to her rustic abode and insisted we adorn ourselves with traditional garments before coming inside. I'm still not convinced that the light-blue and gold-embroidered oversized waistcoat was really my style, but my companions declared it looked very fetching, especially accompanied by the ribbon-adorned bonnet that was placed on my head.

Suitably-attired, we entered the gloomy dining area - the only source of light being the open wood fire used to cook our meal. We crowded around the miniature table, hunched over on chairs designed for toddlers, and spent the next hour feasting on tough morsels of beef; doused in fresh salsa, crumbled cheese and powdered peanuts, and all wrapped up in fresh tortillas - of which there was an endless supply as our host and her young daughter (with her own child wrapped in a sheet and strapped to her back) were constantly kneading, pressing and cooking throughout the meal. The whole experience was very humbling and educational - it was a real privilege to be welcomed so openly into this stranger's house and to be attended to in this way, without hesitation or question.

A wonderful way to end my time in San Cristobal. The next morning I took a shuttle bus south across the border with Guatemala and onto the Spanish learning hub of Quetzaltenango (referred to as Xela - pronounced 'Sh-ela'). I've been in Xela for nearly two weeks already - taking five hours of private Spanish tuition every weekday and living with a non-English speaking local family. It's been an incredible experience so far and I still have another two weeks left. But that's for the next blog....

(as always, more photos below - click the image for a bigger version)

Another church viewpoint
Waiting for a bus

Random outdoor gym
Local market

My favourite Taco lady in the local market

Arts and crafts market

Beads for sale!
Hiking around San Cristobal

Driving above the clouds en route to the Canyon

Driving above the clouds en route to the Canyon

Driving above the clouds en route to the Canyon

The Canyon

The Canyon

The Canyon (my favourite pic)
Graveyard in San Juan Chamula

Graveyard in San Juan Chamula

Painters in San Juan Chamula

Our chefs in San Juan Chamula

Host lunch family in San Juan Chamula
San Juan Chamula